Novak Djokovic's temporary detention shines spotlight on refugees detained for years in hotel prison

January 9, 2022
Adnan and Ali protest for freedom as 200 supporters rally outside the Park Hotel on January 9. Photo: RAC/Facebook

Since Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic was detained by Australian Border Force (ABF) at the Park Hotel in Carlton, media interest in his predicament has afforded refugee advocates an opportunity to demand the release of refugees who have been held there for as long as two years.

The Refugee Action Collective Victoria (RAC) has been organising regular protests, and on January 6 with camera crews stationed to report on Djokovic’s predicament activists blocked the streets and some sat on the roof. Police and fire brigades surrounded the hotel prison where 36 refugees are detained. Some have been in prison for more than nine years, including in PNG and Nauru.

Djokovic, who was to play the Australian Open, said he had the paperwork but was detained at Melbourne Airport by ABF and his visa was canceled. His fans, many flying the Serbian flag, came to the Park Hotel to protest his detention and possible ban from playing the Grand Slam. 

Some, as journalist Cait Kelly posted on Twitter, learned more about how refugees are treated in this country. “We've got Djokovic supporters on the left and refugee advocates on the right. One Djokovic supporter just said to me ‘I feel so ignorant. I came here for him and find out they've been locked up for 9 years. It’s so wrong.’” 

Refugee Mehdi Ali, who turned 24 on January 7, has been imprisoned in Australia’s offshore prisons since he was 15. He was transferred to the Park Hotel nine months ago. He told the The Project on January 7 that he was initially “excited” about the media attention but quickly became “disappointed” and “sad” as he realised the reason people found out about the refugees’ predicament was Djokovic’s detention.

Activist Andrea Bortoli told Green Left that using the opportunity to “shine a light on” the “inhumane border policies of the federal government” was important. “We also wanted to show our solidarity with the men inside, to let them know that there are people fighting for their freedom. I imagine it was disheartening seeing so many news crews reporting on the wealthy tennis player and ignoring their plight.”

Aaron Craine told Green Left that he hoped as more people realised how badly refugees are treated we will be “one step closer to seeing a change to the cruel asylum seeker policies”.

But RAC spokesperson David Glanz wasn’t so optimistic. He fears that “long after Djokovic is back on the lucrative global tennis circuit, those men will still be in detention”.

RAC wants all the refugees detained at the Park Hotel and all those held in detention by the government “for so-called border crimes” to be be freed and given permanent protection. “We want to see an end to the system of mandatory detention and a new policy of welcoming people in need and giving them safe shelter,” Glanz said.

Information about the disgusting conditions in the Park Hotel is being revealed. On December 23, a fire broke out on level four and a man taken to hospital. At the time, Ali told Green Left he felt “unsafe”. “We were not evacuated even though news sources reported evacuating us from Park Hotel. We were in the same building, just on the ground floor.”

A few days later refugees were served maggots and mould for their evening meal. Mustafa Salah, an Iraqi asylum seeker in Park Hotel told SBS, “The food they’ve been delivering is putting people in danger … Even an animal cannot eat this type of food.”

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